Solar goes polar: SRC's new solar panels' efficiency in question

Alan Fearns/Sun Star Reporter
October 16, 2012

The Review of Infrastructure, Sustainibility and Energy Board is almost finished installing solar panels that will cover the Student Recreation Center. The solar panels will cover 4 percent of the building’s electrical demand.  This is the first large scale solar sustainability project at UAF and is completely student run.

In 2007, Charles “Chinook” Ward, Utilities Division Director and Mike Ruckhaus, Manager of Design and Construction worked together to set up UAF’s first solar array on the Taku Lot’s bus station.  The goal of the installation was to observe the potential for solar energy on campus.  According the Office of Sustainability’s website, the 510 watt system consisting of 3 panels, provided an estimated 60 kilowatts per hour of energy.

A worker roots through his bib searching for a tool to work on the wiring of the newly installed solar panels on the west side of the Student Recreation Center building. Oct 4 2012. Cordero Reid/Sun Star

These results caused Ward and Ruckhaus to push for a larger project.  “They wanted to do something bigger, but were denied by the university,” said Jessie Huff, SRC Solar PV project leader.

In the summer of 2010, Huff proposed the idea for 15 kW solar panels at SRC, as a graduate student in the summer of 2010 to the Director of Sustainability, Michelle Hebert.

“It is my job to help students get their ideas out and assist as much as I can,” Hebert said.

The RISE Board and collective Student Initiative for Renewable Energy Now fees provided $28,000 to fund the project

Although the project is located at the student funded SRC, the solar panels will not be lowering the athletics fee until further actions are taken.  The SRC is currently not paying for electricity, so reducing their electric bill is not applicable.  The state of Alaska currently pays for all the electricity.  The campus energy grid is a whole, and all buildings’ electricity will need to be further separated and charged by the individual energy usages.  Until this goes into effect, lowering student fees remains a long term goal.

“The panels are expected to be in use for the next 50 years, eventually students will see the money from electrical savings of running the SRC,” Huff said.

Huff’s research shows that solar photo-voltaic technology, the use of converting sunlight to electricity, is an effective way to harvest energy due the campus’ northern altitude and low solar density.  Although energy yieldings will be diminutive in the winter’s short daylight hours, the SRC requires more energy during the summer months to circulate air throughout the buildings.

UAF’s current source of energy is the campus power plant.  The plant burns coal to provide electricity and heat to the campus year round.  Only 30 percent of the potential energy from burning coal is turned into electricity while the rest is turned to steam that supplies heat.  During summer months solar-thermal technology would be excessive with the leftover heat from coal.  Therefore, solar PV technology is used to contribute to the electricity that the SRC needs.

If any power is unused by the SRC it will be transferred through the campus’ energy grid system to some place else.

The were many deciding factors when it came to choosing whether to put the panels on the roof or side wall of the SRC.  The Cold Climate Housing Research Center found that in Alaska, the sun sits relatively low, and placing the panels vertical would not change the energy payoff.  Since the SRC wall is south facing, the power will not decrease, but may increase in Spring with additional reflections from snow.  Placing the panels on the roof would have allowed the panels to be larger, but risks of leaks and snow gathering finalized the decision to put it on the side wall.

“We decided on the wall system, because of the location of everything, it seemed more natural, and easier to run the electrical into the building.  We went with it, and kept moving forward,” Huff said.

According to Mark Oldmixon, Director of Recreation, Adventure and Wellness, the SRC staff does not have a part in the project other than it being on their building.  The installation has caused disruptive noise, but  it “pales in comparison” to the other campus construction, Oldmixon said.

“Every once in awhile the building will shake, but I have no complaints whatsoever.  It adds aesthetic to the building,” Oldmixon said.

Along with the south-sun-facing walls, RISE chose the SRC for solar panels for greater energy efficiency.  Plans have been made to change out the building’s light bulbs and installing bicycles that produce electricity.  As the overall energy consumption is lowered, the solar panels intake will become more noticeable.

“Once the ball started rolling, everybody could on board and be like ‘Yeah, lets put solar everywhere,'” Huff said.

The SRC Solar PV project has spurred other solar powered projects at the Sustainable Village and the University Ave firehouse.  Four solar arrays were completed October 5 at the village, and the firehouse array is estimated to be finished in three weeks.  The new projects did not require as much approval, since the panels are attached to poles instead of a building.

“When you want to touch a university building, you need a lot of approval.  People have to sign off of things, engineering plans need approval,” Huff said. “Where if you want to put a pole on the ground and stick solar panels on it, you don’t have to go through all the hoops.  With buildings, its like a remodel.”

The mission of these projects are to progress UAF in becoming a model for sustainability in the far north and conserve energy.  Average expected energy accumulation can be viewed based off the Taku’s solar panel charts from the Office of Sustainability web page.

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